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Survive the Airport with Kids: 10 Ideas to Totally Ace Your Layover

Photo by Denis Moskvinov / iStock
Photo by Denis Moskvinov/istockphoto

With pilots and flight attendants, cool arrival and departure screens, and windows looking onto busy runways, airports are veritable learning labs—good news for parents who experience delayed flights with young kids in tow! Turn traveling with kids into a real adventure with these 10 activities that’ll have you laughing and learning during your next big trip (even if things go south).

1. Play Bingo at the Airport with Your Kids

Before you leave, make a list of sights and sounds commonly found at airports. Then have fun searching for items to check off the list. Here are a few suggestions to get you started: a green suitcase, a sleeping passenger, moving sidewalks, a pilot, beeping passenger carts, someone being paged on the loudspeaker, a flight bound for LAX, a tiny dog, a cup of coffee...the possibilities are endless.

2. Pack an Airport Fun Kit

There’s an art to packing a travel entertainment kit, and we’ve got some helpful suggestions for you. (Pro tip: If you opt for Legos®, be prepared to crawl under chairs to rescue Lando Calrissian’s tiny head.)

  • Keep crayons and markers all together by sticking them in a lidded coffee mug
  • Use plastic containers with lids to corral any small toys
  • Invest in an erasable doodle toy with an attached pen—it may not seem like a “must have” right now, but it’ll keep you from worrying about your kid going all Jackson Pollack on the seats.

3. Take Advantage of Kid-Friendly Airports

Chicago O'Hare International boasts a full children’s aviation exhibit, complete with kid-size cargo planes, cockpits, luggage station, and Legos. San Francisco International Airport’s SFO Kids’ Spots include a weather-themed play area with structures that help kids get out the wiggles during waits, as well as interactive learning centers spotlighting Bay Area artists. Contact your layover airport before you depart to find out if kid-friendly fun awaits!

4. Ride the Airport Transit Trams or Trains

Most kids love trains. Most kids love amusement park rides. Combine the love of the two with a few trips around the loop of the airport light rail and blow your little one’s mind. Woo-hoo! It’s like Disneyland! (Kinda sorta.) To turn the ride into a serious skill-builder, combine tram-riding with airport map reading.

5. Count the Red (or Blue, or White, or Green…) Luggage

All of those big windows make primo vantage points for bag-watching. Watch the baggage handlers outside as they load luggage onto the plane. Tally up all the colors you see or pick one color (blue, say) and count the blue bags until you get to 10—and then start over with a new color!

6. Build Job Smarts

Airports give you a great chance to teach your kid about the world of work. As you encounter airport employees, ask your child to guess what each person’s job is: “What do you think that woman is doing with those light sticks? Yes, she’s guiding the plane from the gate to the runway.”

You can also build vocabulary by talking about airport terminology or reading the signs posted in the airport. This exercise works for all levels of development, whether your child is just learning phrases like “backward and forward” or is ready to tackle heavy-duty phrases like “Transportation Security Administration.”

Son sitting on dad's lap looking out airport window
Photo by noblige/istockphoto

7. Go on a Color Hunt

You can often find art exhibits, murals, and photographs at the airport—but even if they’re mostly ads, you can bet the airport is just brimming with colors. So have your kid pick a favorite color and go on a color hunt! This helps avoid the boredom of sitting in one place, reinforces color vocabulary, and keeps your whole group (yourself included) active off the plane so you can rest on the flight.

8. Rely on an Old Favorite—I-Spy

“I spy with my little eye something…yellow!” Have your child ask questions to figure out what you’re looking at. Give clues for younger children, or let older kids narrow down the options with questions like, “Is it on a wall?” or “Is it moving?” There’s a reason this game is a classic—it’s fun and truly helps pass the time!

9. Bring Along Some Window Clings

Alphabet window clings are a great kid entertainer to pack in your travel bag—especially because they lay flat and don’t have a lot of tiny pieces that you’ll (inevitably) have to fish out from under the waiting room seats. Set up your family camp in front of a big airport window and make some words together. You can also find window clings of shapes that can be used to “build” robots, houses, or even airplanes!

10. Download the Mad Libs® App

Remember your stack of Mad Libs books that were a must on road trips? They’re now available in an iOS app! With 21 free Mad Libs stories, this app is a great way to teach older kids about parts of speech with silly nouns, verbs, and adjectives that will have the whole family laughing in no time.

Bonus Tip: Always bring extra snacks. Even if you’re hopping on a short flight that you’ve taken a dozen times before, it always pays to plan ahead when it comes to nibbles. Save some clams—and avoid giving in to pleas for candy and fast food—by packing some healthy, crunchy snacks in case a quick trip is unexpectedly prolonged.

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